Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult moments in a person’s life. You need time to process, grieve, and make arrangements for a funeral or memorial—and for most people, that means taking time away from work.
Many companies have bereavement leave policies to support employees through the death of a loved one. But what, exactly, is bereavement leave? How do you know if your employer offers bereavement leave (and if and when you can take it)? And what’s the best way to request time off when you’re dealing with the death of a loved one?
Before you read on, an important note: While we interviewed lawyers for this story, we are not lawyers ourselves, and every case is different. So please consider this a general resource to help you get started and, if you need it, seek personalized advice specific to your situation from an actual lawyer!
- What Is Bereavement Leave?
- Are Employers Legally Required to Offer Bereavement Leave?
- How Do I Find Out if My Company Offers Bereavement Leave—and Whether I Qualify?
- Do I Need to Show Proof When Requesting Bereavement Leave?
- How Long Is Bereavement Leave—and Is It Paid?
- Can I Use FMLA for Bereavement?
- What Are My Options if My Company Doesn’t Offer Bereavement Leave?
- 3 Tips for Requesting—and Taking—Bereavement Leave
What Is Bereavement Leave?
“Bereavement leave is job leave...available to an employee at the time of death or funeral,” says attorney Alex Granovksy of Granovsky & Sundaresh PLLC, a labor and employment law firm with offices in New York and Ohio. Ideally, the time off “will allow the employee to grieve privately and attend to their family and well-being while not focusing on work.”
While there’s no strict definition of what qualifies as “family” in terms of bereavement leave, “most companies define ‘family member’ as someone who is a parent, child, sibling, step-parent, step-child, grandparent, grandchild, father-in-law, and mother-in-law,” says Dan Kalish, Managing Partner and owner of HKM Employment Attorneys, a national law firm that focuses on employment law.
Are Employers Legally Required to Offer Bereavement Leave?
Currently, employers are not required to provide bereavement leave to their employees—at least on a federal level. There are, however, certain states that require employers to offer bereavement leave to certain employees and in certain situations.
“Oregon, for example, mandates unpaid bereavement leave for employees of companies with more than 25 employees,” Kalish says. It’s the only state with a wide-reaching bereavement leave law, though others have laws that address more specific situations: “Illinois requires unpaid bereavement leave [of] up to ten days for the loss of a child,” he says. And “Washington state requires state employers—not private employers—to provide bereavement leave up to three days.”
That being said, even though employers may not be required by federal or state legislation to provide bereavement leave, many choose to, says Katie Lipp, owner and employment and business attorney at Lipp Law Firm in Fairfax, Virginia. In fact, according to a 2018 report on employee benefits from the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), 88% of businesses offer paid bereavement leave.
How Do I Find Out if My Company Offers Bereavement Leave—and Whether I Qualify?
So plenty of businesses offer bereavement leave. But how do you find out if your employer is one of them? And if your company does offer bereavement leave, how do you know if you qualify?
“Generally, this information will be provided in the company’s employee handbook,” Lipp says. If you’re part of a union, you may also be able to find the information in your collective bargaining agreement.
If your company has an established bereavement leave policy, it should outline whether the bereavement leave is paid or unpaid, how much time off is offered under the policy, and who qualifies to take bereavement leave. “Qualification depends on who is included in the company’s definition of a loved one,” Lipp says.
If you can’t find a written policy, aren’t sure if you qualify, or just need more clarity, you can turn to HR to get a better understanding of how your company’s specific bereavement leave policy works, Lipp says.
Do I Need to Show Proof When Requesting Bereavement Leave?
There are very few people who would fake the death of a loved one in order to get a few days off of work. But still, there are companies that will want to confirm the bereavement leave request is legitimate—and, as such, “some employers require proof before fulfilling an employee’s request,” Lipp says.
If your employer requires proof to support your bereavement leave request, the exact documentation you’ll need to provide will, again, “depend on the policy and the requirements the employer places in the handbook,” says Brenda Neckvatal, an HR industry professional and coach with over 22 years of experience in human resources and crisis management. “A copy of the obituary or memorial event notification is usually sufficient for employers.”
How Long Is Bereavement Leave—and Is It Paid?
Two of the biggest questions people have about bereavement leave are how long they can take off to grieve the death of a loved one and whether that time off is paid. And the truth is, it varies from organization to organization.
The length of bereavement leave can depend on a variety of factors—but typically lasts a few days. “Depending on the circumstances—including the employee’s relationship with the recently passed individual, the location of the funeral, or the severity of the situation—bereavement leave could last [on average] between one to five days,” Lipp says.
Additionally, bereavement leave may be paid, unpaid, or some combination of the two. “An employer might initially provide paid time off for three to five days, but the time off could become unpaid if the employee requests additional days off,” says Lipp.
If you need to extend your bereavement leave—but you also need to get paid for your time off—“some companies...allow their employees to reallocate sick leave and vacation time toward bereavement leave,” Lipp says.
Can I Use FMLA for Bereavement?
The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to take leave to take care of a sick family member—but unfortunately, it doesn’t allow them to take leave if a family member passes away.
“Family Medical Leave is very specific in what is covered and what is not,” Neckvatal says. “FMLA offers eligible employees the right to take job-protected unpaid leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition. However, if that family member should pass away, the leave ends. Death of a dependent or a family member is not covered under FMLA.”
What Are My Options if My Company Doesn’t Offer Bereavement Leave?
The vast majority of companies offer bereavement leave—but if yours doesn’t, that doesn’t mean you’re out of options.
If you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, “you should immediately contact your supervisor to see if you can take some time off,” Kalish says—even if your company doesn’t have a specific bereavement leave policy. That might mean exploring using PTO (including sick or vacation time) to take the time off you need or coming to another agreement with your boss and company.
In most cases, your employer should be sympathetic to your situation and work with you to ensure you get the time off you need. “Companies are run by people, and most people are fundamentally decent and understand the human need to grieve,” Granovsky says.
3 Tips for Requesting—and Taking—Bereavement Leave
If you have to request bereavement leave, you’re already dealing with a lot. Here are a few tips to make the process as simple as possible:
1. Request Leave ASAP
Work is probably the last thing on your mind when you lose someone you love. But you’ll want to let your company know you’ll need to take bereavement leave as soon as you can.
When you make your initial request you may not know exactly when—or for how long—you’ll need to step away from work. That’s OK. “Death sometimes happens unexpectedly and the time necessary to take care of post-death matters is ambiguous,” Lipp says. Just keep your employer in the loop as you confirm more details, notifying your employer about important dates and travel plans.
Check your company’s policy to find out who exactly to request bereavement leave from; generally, HR handles these kinds of leave requests, but some companies will want you to reach out to your direct supervisor first.
If the policy doesn’t lay out a clear process or you’re otherwise unsure, start with your supervisor; they may not ultimately be the right person to approve your leave request, but they can put you in touch with HR if needed. Plus, your boss will need to know you’re going to be out of office anyway, which means that even if you requested bereavement leave from HR according to your company’s guidelines, you should make sure your direct supervisor has the details.
2. Pick Up the Phone
When you’re grieving, you may not feel like talking to your boss or HR manager. But while requesting leave via email or text might be tempting, it’s best to have an actual conversation.
Send your supervisor or HR manager a quick message (you can use whatever method you typically use to communicate, such as email or Slack) and ask if they have a few minutes to connect over the phone—and then give them a call. “It’s best to have that direct one-on-one conversation,” Neckvatal says, which can help avoid any potential miscommunication.
There’s no need to get into too much detail; keeping things short, simple, and straight-to-the-point is completely appropriate. If you’re not sure what to say, this short script may be helpful:
“Hi, [Name]. I just wanted to let you know that my [family member] has passed away and I am going to be requesting bereavement leave. Can you let me know what I need to do to get that leave approved?”
Your boss or HR contact should let you know of any steps you need to take in order to get your leave approved (for example, if you need to provide proof) and they should be able to take care of processing your request from there.
While a phone call is the best way to navigate the conversation, you can also follow up with an email detailing your conversation to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
3. Prepare to Disconnect
When you take bereavement leave, you want to be able to fully disconnect from work. So before you sign off and head out, set yourself up to take the time and space you need.
Turn on an out-of-office message so people know you won’t be responding to emails. If you want to say explicitly in your autoresponder that you’re out on bereavement leave, you can—but if that feels invasive, you can also just use a generic OOO message. (Or you can set up one version to get sent to your coworkers or immediate team and another for anyone else.)
Try to make a quick list of any colleagues you work with regularly or are collaborating with on a project that’s in progress. Let them know you’ll be unavailable for a few days—and will tackle any project-related tasks when you get back.
These steps may seem daunting in a moment of loss, but they’ll allow you to take the time you need without worrying about what’s happening at work—and will help you avoid any additional stress when you return.